How neuromarketing helps us understand post-pandemic changes in consumer behavior

I feel, therefore I buy. Marketers have been aware of the connection between emotional drivers and purchasing decisions for many years now, and they haven’t hesitated to use these emotional drivers to create marketing experiences — in other words, to get you to buy things. While in classic economic theory, consumers are described as rational individuals who decide whether or not to buy a product based on objective factors such as price and utility, recent research points out that most of our purchasing decisions are much less rational than we believe and much more emotional.

In his book, ‘How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market,’ Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman suggested that up to 95% of the purchasing decisions we make are driven by the subconscious mind, and good marketers leverage this to create deeper emotional connections with their audience.

Image credits: Mehrad Vosoughi.

We’ve seen examples of this across all marketing channels: luxury brands play on the idea of exclusivity to appeal to our feelings of self-worth, telecom companies tap into our desire for social connections to sell cell phone plans, and insurance companies have more than once gone viral for their mobilization of emotions in advertising. But then along came the pandemic, which, apart from changing our approach to health, wellness, work, and family, also impacted deeply-rooted purchasing behaviors. For brands and marketers, understanding these changes has become crucial, which is where neuromarketing comes in.

Although the concept of neuromarketing isn’t exactly new (the term was coined in 2011 by Christophe Morin), it has now become more relevant than ever, and in the context of the pandemic, it’s an essential tool for understanding three things:

  • Why COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior;
  • What are the new psychological characteristics of the post-pandemic shopper;
  • What brands and marketers can do to appeal to this new shopper.

Neuromarketing and the post-pandemic landscape

As the name suggests, neuromarketing is a combination between neuroscience and marketing. It’s a newer branch of the advertising industry and aims to understand the neurocognitive principles that influence the way consumers react to marketing. Neuromarketing is an interdisciplinary study that also uses insights from social psychology and behavioral economics, and the methods used to research it continue to evolve.

Although it’s easy to dismiss neuromarketing as just fluff science, or at most a tool for figuring out the right color combinations to use on a website or what key phrases to use in an ad, its insights are useful and can go much deeper — they delve into the depths of human behavior, and why some stimuli appeal to us more than others. For example, an MIT neuromarketing study found that paying with a credit card activates the brain’s reward system and releases dopamine, which makes us want to spend more.

Generally, neuromarketing studies have people interact with various stimuli, such as colors, text, and sounds, and interpret biometric measurements such as eye movements, response time, and heart rate with technologies like EEG, MEG, and fMRI.

For brands, figuring out what drove consumer purchases could be a tough puzzle to crack, even before the pandemic. Now, it’s even more difficult because COVID-19 affected many areas of our lives and changed old purchasing behavior. Every brand hoping to stay relevant should collaborate with a leading company supplying market research to find out how its target consumers have changed and what are the new values that appeal to them.

How has consumer psychology changed after the pandemic?

Empty supermarket aisles, panic buying, a sudden interest in homemade recipes – these were just a few of the trends that started with the onset of the pandemic and, although it can be easy to dismiss them as some of the many weird things that happened in 2020, neuromarketing experts point out that they aren’t just trends. Some are linked to psychological changes that could define the market for a while now.

For example, a new study conducted at the University of Adelaide, Australia, in June and December 2020, identified four key traits of the post-pandemic consumer:  

  • Risk aversion. 24% of respondents said they did resort to panic buying for fear that they would run out of essentials such as toilet paper. This tendency was more common among parents, and scientists assume this happens because the pandemic has lowered consumers’ tolerance for risk and made them plan more in advance.
  • Interest in the country of origin. 46% of consumers said that, for safety reasons, they cared more about the product’s country of origin; as a result, products that were advertised as ‘made in Australia’ flew faster off the shelves. Similar findings were published by American researchers from the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences: ‘made in the USA’ claims on the packaging increase demand and drives online auction prices up.
  • Higher focus on health and wellness. According to the Australian study, there was a 45% increase in home-cooked meals, a 33% increase in fruits and vegetable consumption, and a 60% increase in plant-based protein sales.
  • Sustainability. People are going to the supermarket less often and, when they do, they look for sustainable options.

In addition to these four factors, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology advocates for the role of neuromarketing as an emotional connection tool between organizations and audiences in social networks. While many brands have managed to align themselves with the new purchasing values of the post-pandemic shopper, others have continued to rely on the old ways, which led to insensitive, irrelevant, or tone-deaf marketing messages.

The pandemic has changed the world in more ways than we probably envision at this point. Some of these changes will revert to the “normal” baseline. But some are here to stay, and they may shape society for a long time to come. We’d be wise to pay attention.

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